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Reform UK criticised for claiming funding NHS and reaching net zero are at odds
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Reform UK criticised for claiming funding NHS and reaching net zero are at odds

The Reform UK party has been accused by green campaigners of trying to “weaponise” the climate crisis as a wedge issue in the general election after the party leader claimed funding the NHS and reaching net zero were at odds.

At a press conference in Westminster on Monday, Reform’s leader, Richard Tice, suggested that scrapping the UK’s pledge to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 would free up cash for the NHS.

Tice said: “We have a choice in this country, it seems to me. A pretty clear choice. Do we want zero waiting lists in two years, and to keep them there? That is the Reform choice. Or do we want net zero CO2 emissions in 25 years? That is the Labour choice.”

Tice’s plans for the NHS also depend on far more people seeking private healthcare, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. He suggested this could reduce the strain on the NHS, though medical experts have said that many of the staff relied on by private providers also work in the NHS.

Tice claimed that fulfilling the promise to meet net zero, which all mainstream parties in the UK have committed to, would cost about £30bn a year. He said cutting NHS waiting lists to zero in two years would require about £17bn a year of additional spending on healthcare.

Tice told the Today programme: “The British people have not been told of the cost [of net zero], which is over £30bn of taxpayer cash [a year].”

However, his calculations are opaque. A spokesperson for the party said they came from “a variety of sources” including the party’s “own judgments and assessments”. They said government departments, councils, quangos and other bodies directed the spending of “billions” of taxpayers’ cash every year on areas such as “changing building processes, grids, etc” to reduce carbon emissions, “as well as providing vast subsidies”.

Scrapping the net zero target, Tice said, would “mean all this stops”.

He claimed that subsidies to renewables companies were about £15bn a year, to steel companies about £1bn, and to car companies further billions, while the electricity grid was receiving about £60bn a year over 10 years. “This must all stop,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said: “We do not recognise this [£30bn] figure. We agree hard-working families must not face unfair costs and be forced to change their lifestyles, which is why we are taking a proportionate, pragmatic and realistic approach to net zero. We have been focused on unlocking private investment, which has seen £24bn since September alone.”

The government does not break out exactly how much is spent on net zero, but the International Energy Agency recently estimated that the UK government spent about £26bn a year on low-carbon energy, less than comparable developed countries.

The Reform spokesperson did not quote these estimates. The amounts spent on subsidies and tax breaks for oil and gas are also likely to be high: the Liberal Democrats found, from research by the House of Commons library, that £60bn had been spent by the government on renewables from 2015 to 2023, which was considerably less than the £80bn the government spent on fossil fuels over the same period.

Previous claims over the cost of net zero have also been shown to have little factual basis.

Carla Denyer, a co-leader of the Green party, said: “This is the sort of bonkers thinking that we have come to expect from Tice and his Reform party. They have a net zero credibility rating.

“The path to net zero could actually lead to financial savings for the NHS rather than increased costs. Cleaner air, more active travel and improved access to green spaces – all are proven to improve both physical and mental health. And the cost of inaction on tackling the climate crisis far outweighs the cost of action.”

Green campaigners accused Tice of trying to create divisions without having a clear idea of what seeking net zero emissions would involve and what the dangers of failing to address the climate crisis would be for the UK.

Mike Childs, the head of science, policy and research at Friends of the Earth, said: “The Reform party’s suggestion that cutting back on spending to achieve our climate goals would somehow benefit the NHS is complete nonsense. The health of people and our planet is inextricably linked.”

He said that living in cold, damp homes caused illness, placing strain on the NHS. Cutting emissions by reducing the vast waste of energy from the UK’s draughty homes would also save money and reduce bills, particularly for poor households.

“By providing some funding – although far from enough – for home insulation, the government is helping reduce energy bills and going some way to address the tens of billions of pounds that cold homes are costing the NHS and the economy,” he said.

Government spending on net zero in other areas was also a clear public benefit, he added. “Government money is spent on supporting public transport, which cuts carbon emissions and air pollution. Dirty air creates a massive burden on health services and business – the costs of illness and lost workdays are estimated to add up to £20bn a year.”

Campaigners have also said renewable energy, despite being targeted by the far right, is essential to the energy security of the UK. High gas prices after the Russian invasion of Ukraine pushed up the cost of living, but renewable energy offers a cheaper alternative that is not subject to such international fluctuations.

Allowing the climate crisis to continue unchecked would cost the UK economy hundreds of billions of pounds, according to estimates. Childs said: “As climate breakdown intensifies and weather extremes such as searing temperatures, floods and storms grow more volatile, our already strained NHS will see yet more demand on its services. The Reform party’s plans would cost the NHS dearly, not lessen pressure on it.”

Doug Parr, the chief scientist and policy director at Greenpeace UK, suggested Tice’s remarks were geared more towards stirring up a culture war over net zero than any serious policy intention. He said: “Richard Tice is weaponising climate policies to sow division, when in fact they’re the solution to so many of the problems our society faces. Climate solutions will not only help the planet, but they will help ordinary people struggling with the cost of living, a stagnant economy and crumbling public services.”

He added: “The way to save our NHS is to tax the super-rich and big polluters, as well as investing in green technology which is the biggest and best opportunity to grow our flailing economy. This would raise billions to save our NHS, ease the cost of living, as well as help the climate. If Richard Tice would rather spout discredited ideas than ask his rich mates to pay their fair share of taxes, you have to ask whose interests he is really serving.”

Source: theguardian.com